3D printing: If you haven’t heard of it, you’re either blissfully insulated from today’s media or a purposeful avoider of trendy buzzwords. And if you fall into one of these camps, you’re probably one of the few who can help this technology out of a current rut. But more about that later.
In all of its different forms, 3D printing is a technology for taking descriptions of objects in a computer and turning them into solid objects that you can hold in your hand. Some printers use lasers to turn liquid resin into beautiful, almost crystal-clear solid objects that look like glass sculptures. Some bind powder together with colored glues and produce objects that are a lot like colorful sandcastles that are both gritty and fragile. Still others melt plastic or rubber and squeeze it out layer by layer into whatever shape you want, much like decorating a cake with icing layers.
Available in industry for over 20 years, 3D printers have gotten so popular and so pervasive that they even made it into the President’s State of the Union address last year. There are also hundreds of 3D printer models you can choose from on Amazon.com, starting at only a few hundred dollars.
That means that for about the same price and size of a microwave, you can basically buy an early version of the futuristic Star Trek “replicator” machine. Of course, 3D printers can’t yet print out “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” but if you can describe the shape of a physical object to a computer, you can click print and a few hours later hold that thing in your hand.
3D Printing in Research
For research, the technology is beginning to have significant impacts. We can take things that are almost invisible or poorly understood and not just look at them through a microscope or draw a picture of them on screen. Now, we can create an enlarged version we can touch and hold.
This simple transformation of a picture into an object has profound benefits and impacts that aid our understanding of what we research. For example, if you look at a table of numbers, understanding what they mean can be hard. But if you plot those numbers in a graph, suddenly they make more sense.
That’s because your brain grew up and learned to understand things in a 3D world. A graph is closer to the “real world” than a bunch of numbers, so it’s easier for your brain to make sense of it. Moving pictures out of a microscope or off of a computer screen and into your hand as an object does the same thing — it makes the data more real and easier for your brain to process.
In everything from energy to medicine, 3D printing will become widespread in the research world in the near future.
How You Can Help the Future of 3D Printing
3D printing is kind of in a rut. It’s a completely new way of making things, so it should be able to do new things that couldn’t be done before. But most people aren’t using it to make the impossible possible, they’re just using it to make the inconvenient more convenient. My group uses 3D printing to understand how molecules move and how statistics interact, which is nearly impossible without 3D printing, so we’re getting there, but you can probably do even better.
People are spending hundreds of dollars to buy a device that lets them spend two days building a model so that they can print out a $2 replacement part for a broken knob in their kitchen. Anyone who bothers to build a new knob for the kitchen must have the creativity and skills to make something new, important and actually valuable — something that no one has thought of before.
If you’ve got ideas about what 3D printing can do that’s completely new, feel free to drop us a line in the comments below. We’ve been working with this technology for years and are convinced that it has perfect applications that are yet to be discovered.
Those completely new uses probably won’t come from groups like mine that already work with 3D printing, though. Instead, they’ll come from fresh brains with fresh perspectives. So here’s your chance: What’s your brand new use for a near-magic machine that can make a near-perfect copy of any object?
William Ray, PhD, is a mathematician-turned-computer-scientist-turned-biophysicist who almost got an art degree along the way (by accident).
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